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Common Application Pitfalls and Tips

The Common Application, accepted by over 1000 colleges, launched on August 1st. While the application is pretty straightforward, here are some things to look for as you register and complete it.

1. Keep Track of Your Registration Information. Record your password along with the email address you used at registration time so you can easily access it. You may think you will remember it, but we have learned from our students’ experiences that this is often not the case.

2. Preview and Collect Essential Data. Review the entire application (you can print a sample application from the home page) and get answers to questions such as your parents’ college graduation years and whether your family is applying for financial aid or not before you sit down to complete the application.

3. Make Your Activities Descriptions Sing. Colleges want to know why you spent so much time doing a particular activity and how it shaped you as a person. They pretty much understand what most activities are but they don’t know why that activity mattered to you. So it is less important to explain what you do on the debate or soccer team and more important to convey how you have grown from the experience. As a debater, you may have learned how to convey an effective argument and think quickly, and as a member of the soccer team, you may have learned how to give others credit and support your teammates.

Avoid the temptation to fill up every field in the activities section with pursuits that you abandoned long ago or with one-day initiatives such as charity walks. This section should focus on those activities with which you have been most involved and are the most meaningful to you. If you spent four years working for the school paper and you deeply enjoy your work as a reporter then list this activity above your two-year dance participation if dance is now less important to you.

 Students who have done research can share their experiences in the additional information section of the common application.

4. Additional Information Section. While it may make sense for some students to leave this section blank, others may put it to good use. Students who did summer research at a science lab might write a summary of their research findings and role. Artists and musicians (if they are not completing the arts supplement) might include a link to an electronic portfolio or website featuring their creative talents. Students with discrepancies in their academic record or a disconnect between their grades and standardized test scores due to factors such as illness or a learning difference often use this section to write a paragraph explaining their situations. Sometimes students upload a resume here, but only do so if it provides different and more in-depth information than what is listed in your activities page descriptions.

5. Proof, Proof, and Proof Again. Carefully review your work following conventions of grammar. Be sure to have another person proof the entire application, not just the essays.

6. Choose The Decision Plan Deliberately. We have seen students rush through the submission process and indicate the application as regular decision when they intended it to be early action. Once submitted, this cannot be changed, so be sure to check the plan intentionally.

Keep in mind that the most challenging parts of the application are the 250 to 650-word personal statement as well as the supplemental essays that some colleges require, so you need to dedicate a lot of time to writing and revising these responses. Don’t forget to proof them and have another person review your essays before you upload them to the application.

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